on 28 February 2010
It's difficult in this cynical modern world to imagine a time when TV had yet to be seen to pop its cherry, but that is exactly what director Robert Redford tried to do with Quiz Show, a movie based loosely on the rigging scandal that rocked American TV in the late 1950s. The film conjures a vanished world in which the innocent excitement of the viewing millions was in stark contrast to the ruthless manipulations of the big TV companies, who, behind their smiling and virtuous facades, would stop at nothing to maintain ratings and maximise profits.
It's New York City 1958, and Herb Stempel (John Turturro), an average joe from Queens, is the star of hit NBC quiz-show Twenty One. Know-it-all Herb is unbeatable and has amassed a considerable fortune in prize money. But when ratings level off, the show's sponsors demand a fresh face, so producer Dan Enright (David Paymer) persuades a reluctant Herb to take a fall in order to clear the way for a new quiz-show hero. Step forward dashing WASP academic Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), whose Ivy League sophistication quickly makes him a media sensation and the perfect contrast to his uncouth opponent. But when Herb later yells "Fix!", he catches the attention of Congressional investigator Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow), a young and ambitious lawyer who quickly suspects that Twenty One might not be as spontaneous as it looks.
Paul Attanasio's script deals mainly with the murky motivations and unforeseen consequences of the actions of the main players. Greed, envy, class conflict, and vanity are the ingredients of a drama that attempts to highlight the ease with which ordinary people can be seduced and corrupted by those who skilfully appeal to their baser instincts, and how TV, then as now, can make or break those people for its own ends without a twinge of conscience. Quiz Show, however, is not a film with a clearly defined sense of right and wrong, and it's the better for it. Although the amoral corporate TV machine cynically seeks to manipulate, the motivations of those attempting to call it to account are equally questionable.
The performances are good throughout, with John Turturro and Ralph Fiennes both investing their characters with a pleasing degree of substance. Turturro revels in his role as the wronged man, whose sense of injustice can never quite be squared with his willing complicity in a fraud; and Fiennes lends a suitably benign sneer to Charles Van Doren, a man who begins as someone simply toying with the blue-collar amusement that is TV but who is eventually forced to see it as a mirror in which his reflection is none too pretty. The unwitting catalyst for the above-mentioned two, Dick Goodwin, is actually the weakest of the main characters, for the simple reason that it's difficult to understand why he pursues his quarry so doggedly. Rob Morrow also comes dangerously close at time to playing his character as a sort of Bostonian Columbo.
The secondaries are all ably played, with Paul Schofield outdoing the rest with his turn as Charles Van Doren's distinguished father Mark, an otherworldly poet and doyen of the East Coast literary elite whose wry amusement at his son's vulgar celebrity soon turns to horror when its consequences strike too close to home. Such blue-blooded reserve is contrasted completely by David Paymer as Dan Enright - well supported by Hank Azaria playing his pit-bull assistant Albert Freedman - a smooth-talking huckster rarely troubled by moral considerations yet who is still sympathetic, if only because he's a member of the real world, unlike the Van Dorens and their ilk who look down wearily from their lofty heights. It's a stark social contrast that is neatly presented in this film.
Quiz Show, while not being quite as profound as it would like to be, is an enjoyable movie that looks sensational and is moderately gripping throughout. The glossy, chromium-plated world of 1950s America is a feast for the eyes and the recreation of the live early days of Television is impressive and exciting. The film is perhaps a little too long, and the ultimate payoff for all the dramatic build-up is somewhat tame, though the build-up itself is gripping enough to make us forgive its conclusion, but only just. All in all, Quiz Show is a meticulously constructed, beautifully acted and thought-provoking movie that is well worth two or so hours of your time.
In 1958 America the most popular form of entertainment was quiz shows and the most successfull was "Twenty-One". Champions of the show were national heroes. One such hero was Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes) a university professor and a product of America's most renowned literary family. People would tune in every week and watch in amazement at Charles drawing on his huge intellect and knowledge to answer the most obscure and difficult questions. No one would believe that this was a fix and the public only saw what the network and the producers wanted you to see. Herbie Stempel (John Turturo) a previous champion brings accusations against the network that this was a fraud which is dismissed but finally dug up by Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow) a young lawyer working for a Congressional subcommittee.
Directed very well by Robert Redford and with fantastic performances from Ralph Fiennes and Rob Morrow but for me this film is all about the amazingly intense performance from John Turturo who literally eats the screen whenever he's on. Good performances also by David Paymer and
Hank Azaria as the shows producers.
This film superby captures the birth of popular television and the rise and fall of the first reality tv stars in an innocent era highly polished filmaking
The year is 1957, and everyone in America is watching the popular TV game show, "Twenty-One." Contestants can stay on the show for weeks, earning then-astronomical sums of money and becoming household names. Such was the case for Herbert Stemple (John Turturro), a buck-toothed, blue-collar guy who raked in the money. Little did the public know that the show was entirely scripted and that Herb was told the answers in advance. When Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes) a bright, attractive college instructor came on the show, the producers decided it was time for Herb to lose; he did and Van Doren became the biggest thing on television, even making the cover of Time Magazine. But he and the show were no match for Congressional watchdog Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow) who exposed the show for the fraud that it was.
I was really surprised at how exciting this movie was. It's got humor and drama and is filled with tension. Fiennes portrays Van Doren as a witty, charming Connecticut Yankee from an influential family. We care about him and suffer with him as he prepares to confess his part in the fraud not only to Congress, but to his trusting father. Turturro's Herbie is a fascinating, naive, greedy man whose life was ruined by the show. Morrow is excellent as the whistle-blower.
The movie is a wonderful look back at a time when we as a people were so much more trusting and innocent. This scandal rocked the nation and changed us forever. This is a great movie.
on 19 October 2000
Quiz Show is simply a fantastic view of not just the show 21, but of the entertainment world. By far the best part is at the end, when the case is being summed up by the people who run 21, and it brings up some interesting questions. Hardly ever has a movie with a subject matter so... sappy, ever had so much appeal. "The sponsers made money, we made money, the contestants saw more money than they ever will again, and the viewers were happy. Who's the victim?"
I confess, I collect pithy lines from films for later use (though, striving to be a person of honour, I try to cite my source as well). Three lines stick in my mind from this film. The first, cited in the title, is from Charles Van Doren's father (played beautifully by veteran actor Paul Scofield), commenting on the prospect of people cheating on the Quiz Show. The second comes from a comment made with regard to Herb Stempel appearing on television: 'Now there's a face for radio.' The third is when Van Doren is contemplating the ethics of his situation, and remarks: 'I'm just trying to imagine what Kant would make of this.'
The movie 'Quiz Show' is based upon the true story of 21 and the scandals surrounding a fix in the questions and answers to facilitate ratings. The show 21 has only recently made it back to television.
21 was a highly rated NBC programme sponsored by Geritol (back in the days when usually one sponsor carried a show and became identified with it in the minds of the public). The producer, host, and other workers played with the audience by making sure that popular contestants returned, and unpopular ones lost, by rigging the questions. Herb Stempel (played by Tuturro) had a several-month run when it was decided that his popularity had reached a plateau, and a new face was needed. Entering the scene was Charles Van Doren (played by Ralph Fiennes), who in the excitement of fame and money succumbed to the temptation of being given the answers, too.
Eventually the government got involved in investigating a fraud (Rob Morrow as Dick Godwin, the investigator, is excellent) related to the show (big play was made about the absolute secrecy of the questions before hand) -- television was not quite in its infancy but was still in its childhood and the public perception was one of trust. When it was revealed that not only was 21 rigged, but that Van Doren had been part of this, the backlash was tremendous, but short-lived.
The production team including the host eventually made it back to television, and indeed Herb Stempel even made a television commercial recently as a parody of himself playing a contestant on a quiz show who had just been given the answer.
But for Van Doren, whose family was noted for academic achievement, the blow was long-lived, and he was never able to establish a career as an academic again. He did go on to author several books, including one of which I use in reading circles and teaching (The History of Knowledge).
What makes the story so remarkable is that most of the people participating were very intelligent. Stempel was a whiz kid at trivia and factual knowledge; Van Doren had a very broad education covering arts and humanities and the natural sciences. If anyone didn't need the help to win, it was these people.
Martin Scorsese has a cameo in which he gives the investigator the very real and somewhat painful truth--people ultimately don't care about the knowledge or education or even the honesty of the shows, they just tune in to watch the money. And in fact, that is what has happened with shows today--the recent insurance investigation of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, given claims that the questions are too easy and payouts too large, brings this movie back to mind as the 'anything for ratings' mentality still thrives.
A glimpse into a more innocent time that wasn't so innocent after all, this movie works on multiple layers. Now, as I'd like to be on a show myself, does anyone have that Millionaire telephone number?
on 8 November 2011
I saw this movie many years ago and loved it. The recent purchase of this film tells me how well it's withstood time as basically it has more to do with greed re the fixing of contestants on the show, and the love of attention the academic craves as times ticks by. Both those human weaknesses have not changed one iota and probably never will. The guy who played the schmuck was superb, yet in the end I still wanted to murder him for his bad teeth.
on 20 January 2013
This is a really enjoyable film with some great performances by Ralph Fiennes, Paul Schofield and John Turturro. I've always enjoyed it, but re-watching it now it seems to have particular relevance with the issues being considered now concerning the press with the Leveson report. If you've never seen this film, you have a treat in store!
on 24 May 2004
Ah, the good ol' Fifties. The time when, after decades of depression and war, people finally wanted to get on with their lives, rebuild the economy and sweep everything dark and dirty under a big rug (including the escalating arms race with the Soviet Union). When television was everybody's new best friend, and ruled by the likes of Ed Sullivan, Lassie, Bozo the Clown and Lucy ... and by quiz shows.
Well aware of the contests' new, uniquely thrilling live entertainment, studio executives and sponsors quickly capitalized on their appeal, eager to maximize the resulting profits. To that end, however, the shows' outcome couldn't be left to chance: Then as now, viewers were looking for the "right" kind of hero to identify with; so ultimately it was unthinkable to let someone like Herbert Stempel (John Turturro) - not only an annoying nerd with thick glasses and bad teeth but worse, an annoying *Jewish* nerd with thick glasses and bad teeth - win the famous "Twenty-One" for more than a couple of weeks. A more suitable replacement was found in Columbia University lecturer Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), descendant of one of New England's foremost intellectual families and, in the words of the show's co-producer Albert Freedman (Hank Azaria), soon the TV nation's new "great white hope." A brilliant intellectual who nevertheless felt eternally inferior to his Pulitzer Prize-winning father, poet Mark Van Doren (Paul Scofield), his mother (Elizabeth Wilson), likewise a distinguished author, and his uncle, Pulitzer Prize winner Carl Van Doren, Charles ultimately agreed to sell his integrity for a high flight to fame and fortune on borrowed wings, and thus succumbed to the one force driving a quiz show's appeal more than anything else: money, and astronomically large sums thereof.
Based on former Congressional investigator and Kennedy speechwriter Richard Goodwin's "Remembering America: A Voice From the Sixties" and scripted by Paul Attanasio, Robert Redford's 1994 film brilliantly traces the "Twenty-One" scandal - the biggest of several scandals involving rigged quiz shows - from the moment Stempel was told to take a humiliating dive and pass the helm to Van Doren (Goodwin also co-produced). The movie's tone is set from the opening scene, which focuses on neither of the contestants but Goodwin himself (Rob Morrow), newly arrived in Washington with a first-in-his-class Harvard Law School degree in his pockets, and admiring the latest thing in automobile technology in a Chrysler showroom ("Used to be the man drives the car, now the car drives the man," he eventually comments, wowed by the dealer's sales talk). Turning on the radio, they catch an announcer's remark on the Sputnik launch: "All is not well with America" (but "America doesn't own the [Chrysler] 300," the dealer responds). Then Goodwin changes the station and the film's opening credits begin to roll, significantly over Bobby Darin's "Mack the Knife" from Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's "Threepenny Opera:" Although originally conceived as a "Moritat," a darkly cynical ballad, Darin's swinging, upbeat 1959 version, a No. 1 hit for all of 22 weeks (1 1/2 times as long as Van Doren reigned on "Twenty-One") musically pulls every last tooth out of the song's sharp-edged lyrics; just as television's goody-two-shoes pseudo-reality and America's newfound prosperity seemed to obliterate the era's grimmer sociopolitical truths.
"Quiz Show" has been described, in turns, as a political thriller, a morality play, a parable on the loss of innocence and a fact-based drama; and it is all that, and more. It obviously has to be seen in context with "All the President's Men," Redford's 1976 film costarring Dustin Hoffman and Jason Robards, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning Woodward-Bernstein account on Watergate. Just as America lost its political innocence there, it had already lost its innocence vis-a-vis showbiz in the quiz show scandals. But this is also a fascinating exploration of the scandal's underlying psychology; of that mix of insecurity, greed, ambition, hero-worship, prejudice and self-deception which made the manipulation possible in the first place and allowed it to go undetected for so long.
Of the movie's tremendous cast, John Turturro, Ralph Fiennes and Paul Scofield particularly give standout performances as the nerdy, deeply humiliated Herb Stempel, the dazzling Ivy Leaguer Charles Van Doren and his intellectually brilliant, unwaveringly supportive and profoundly moral father Mark, who can snap out a Shakespeare quote appropriate to any situation at the drop of a hat. Rob Morrow's Dick Goodwin, the Jewish kid from Brookline who made it to Harvard and D.C. but is still occasionally up against prejudice, is not far behind (although I confess I sometimes find his accent a tad unconvincingly thick; more so than Fiennes's and Scofield's more refined New England versions). Not to be overlooked are also their female costars - besides Elizabeth Wilson, Mira Sorvino and Johann Carlo as Goodwin's and Stempel's wives - and of course the gang responsible for the goings-on at "Twenty-One:" David Paymer as slick producer Dan Enright, Hank Azaria as his sidekick, Christopher McDonald as host Jack Barry, Allan Rich as NBC boss Robert Kintner and Martin Scorsese in a rare and deadpan appearance as an actor as corporate sponsor Geritol's chairman Martin Rittenhome. (Besides, watch for Barry Levinson as "Today Show" host Dave Garroway and Calista Flockhart and Ethan Hawke [uncredited] as star-struck students).
When first setting out to investigate "Twenty-One," Goodwin aimed no lower than putting television itself on trial. But while the Congressional hearings did cause the downfall of the show and its greatest champion, Enright and Barry soon returned to television, and none of the others responsible for the manipulations suffered any consequences at all. Quiz shows are more popular than ever. "Give the public what they want ... It's entertainment. We're not exactly hardened criminals here. We're in showbusiness," was Al Freedman's cynical conclusion. And the movie's last words are again those of Berthold Brecht, but this time in Lyle Lovett's much darker version of the Moritat: "Mackie, how much did you charge ...?"
on 10 January 2016
Very good movie - stylish and athmospheric. Ralph Fiennes puts in a fine performance as the quiz show contestant induced to take part in a bit of skullduggery to maintain high ratings. Fantastic support from John Turturro, Johann Carlo and Rob Morrow
Quiz Show is a remarkably good film, presenting in vivid detail an important if disillusioning piece of Americana. I understand the events as presented here are quite accurate to the truth of the actual events, but the film is so gripping and so full of implications about the America that was and was yet to be that it has the appearance of a brilliant screen play made exclusively for Hollywood. Honesty, integrity, greed (both personal and corporate), betrayal, politics, discrimination, disillusionment-this movie is filled to the brim with these themes and many more besides. The story is rather simple. Long-running Twenty-one champion Herb Sempel is a contemporary version of Everyman, winning the acclaim he has sought his whole life only to lose it when America begins growing tired of this Jewish underdog (and I mention he was Jewish only because that fact does have some bearings in the story). With ratings slipping, producer Don Enright compels him to take a dive so that he can be replaced by the charming, good-looking, academic, viewer magnet Charles Van Doren. Van Doren, with a lot of help from the producers, goes on a record-breaking run as champion while NBC's viewership rises sharply and the sponsor's sales increase 50%. Humiliated that he was forced to purposely miss an easy question and furious that his expectations to land a spot elsewhere on television go unfulfilled by the network, Sendel cries foul to a grand jury. The story is quickly hushed up behind courtroom doors, but then an upstart Washington lawyer working for a Congressional oversight subcommittee hears word of the rumors and sets out to ferret out the truth.
The acting in this movie is top-notch indeed. John Turturro is wonderful as Herb Sempel, David Paymer and Hank Azaria are convincingly slimy and fast-talking as producers Albert Freedman and Dan Enright, and remarkably talented supporting players such as Paul Scofield and Martin Scorsese make this movie something special, but it is the performance of Rob Morrow in the role of lawyer Dick Goodwin and Ralph Phiennes as Charles Van Doren that really steal the show. (As an aside, look for Ally McBeal's Calista Flockhart in a cameo role as a young coed mooning over her suddenly famous instructor.) These are some complex characters: Sempel is a somewhat paranoid man obsessed with the fame that was taken away from him yet not without secrets himself, but Van Doren is exceedingly hard to read. Oftentimes seemingly ashamed of the fraud he knows he is committing, he allows himself to rationalize his situation, buying into notions that he is doing the right thing by inspiring youngsters to study harder and bringing entertainment to the masses. Beneath all of his motivations lies a seemingly innate need to make his Pulitzer-winning father proud of him and to step out from the shadows of the Van Doren name he secured by birthright alone. I must admit that the lawyer's motivations are somewhat inscrutable to me. Fired up over the chance to "nail television," he is reluctant to implicate everyone despite his zeal for bringing the fraud to light; in the end, it's hard to really say what his most basic motivations are. Any ambiguity I feel over Goodwin's motives is dwarfed by the magnificence of the movie as a whole, however. Clocking in at over two hours, there is not a slow spot to be found anywhere; each scene is dripping with tension and drama. Its subtleties make for great rewatchability, as everything that takes place is important, even though it may not seem so at the time. Van Doren in particular is a marvelous character study in this amazing cinematic morality play.
Having appeared on a game show myself, I thought I might be able to offer a unique perspective on this movie, but its lessons are undeniably universal. I can say that the legacy of this scandal remains vibrant indeed in our own time-I and my fellow contestants were not allowed to bring anything with us to the studio, we were not permitted to go anywhere (including the bathroom) alone all day, and we had to search the faces of the audience in front of us to make sure that no one we knew was in our field of vision. Anyone watching this movie should answer the question that Goodwin answered for himself: if you had been in Van Doren's place, placed under extreme pressure, knowing the eyes of millions would be studying your every move, would you have been a party to a fraud promising you fabulous riches? Beyond providing over two hours of gripping entertainment, this movie compels you to learn something about yourself, and that is one of many reasons why Quiz Show is a certifiably five-star movie.